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A New Counterfeit Problem: Anti-Malaria Drugs

BU’s Zaman awarded grant for device designed to address problem

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Amid a gusher of counterfeit or useless antimalarial drugs, BU’s Muhammad Zaman is developing a pharmaceutical lie detector to determine a pill’s potency.

If successful, Zaman, an associate professor at the College of Engineering, would help address a lethal conundrum bedeviling the developing world: malaria kills an estimated one million people annually in tropical and subtropical regions, but one-third of the antimalarial drugs in a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) review were found to be ineffective against the mosquito-borne illness.

A consortium of governments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is betting Zaman will score a breakthrough. The organization, Saving Lives at Birth, recently gave him a two-year, $250,000 grant for his “PharmaCheck” device, which would scan pills with fluorescence and imaging to measure such properties as their concentration. The NIH studied 27 tests of drugs bought in Asia and Africa over almost a dozen years, beginning in 1999, and determined that a paucity of active ingredients has rendered some antimalarial drugs ineffective. According to the NIH, fully one-third of the drugs failed for that reason or because they were counterfeit or expired.

“The device will be an easy-to-use, robust system” for weeding out phony and ineffective drugs, Zaman promises. Operating on a pump, tubing, and a microchip smaller than a credit card, the shoebox-sized PharmaCheck would weigh in at less than 10 pounds. There are currently methods for testing drugs’ effectiveness, Zaman says, but they’re inadequate, expensive, or require highly trained personnel and equipment.

He says that PharmaCheck, which he’s developing with help from the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and the US Agency for International Development, would be given to governments, nongovernmental organizations, drug companies, and perhaps hospitals. “The final number of the devices [to be deployed] and the cost are being determined as we speak, but it will be extremely affordable, where each test will cost only a few cents at most,” he says. The device will also test drugs for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, he says.

PharmaCheck is another prong in Pakistan-born Zaman’s crusade to bring modern technology and medicines to poor nations. He and his students have worked on inventing an inexpensive, solar-powered symptoms meter to detect childhood pneumonia. In other work, his lab is trying to build a computer model of the metastasis of cancer cells.

One of the consortium partners, the USAID, is helping to select test sites for the initial batch of devices. PharmaCheck was one of more than 500 research projects competing for consortium grants and one of only 15 winners. Melinda Gates presided at the awards ceremony, says Zaman, who calls himself “humbled and honored” by the grant.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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